Capital Sources: Keeping an Eye on Al Qaeda

Rita Katz is one of the country's leading experts on jihadist propaganda. Director and cofounder of the nonprofit SITE Institute, which is funded by government, corporate and media clients, she obsessively monitors jihadi websites and directs what amounts to an intelligence operation that tracks terrorists and their finances. Born in Iraq, where her father was executed in 1969, Katz is fluent in Arabic. Last week she was one of the first people to get hold of Osama bin Laden's latest video, timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet about bin Laden's new taped message to the "people of America," as well as another video that followed it—and the Qaeda propaganda machine that produced them. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: First, is the video address by bin Laden definitely authentic?
Rita Katz:
The video is authentic.

The last bin Laden video was disseminated in October 2004, and his last audio message emerged over a year ago. There had been speculation he was dead. What does this new video tell us about him, beyond the fact that he's alive?
This video informs us that he is healthy and back in business, so to speak, trying to present the image that he should not be considered a leader of a terrorist organization but on the contrary, the leader of the Muslim nation. He speaks very softly and precisely. It is very interesting that both his clothing and his message are very similar to the last video message he sent in 2004.

The question buzzing around the intelligence community seems to be, what to make of the beard? All the gray is gone.
Obviously, he did not really get younger, and his hair didn't suddenly turn black. So there are two possibilities: either he dyed his beard or the beard is a fake.

If he's using a fake beard, might this suggest that he's living in an urban environment and shaving to obscure his identity from those who might see him?
If he's in Waziristan or Afghanistan, I can't believe he'd be able to go around without a beard. It's a bearded-man area. But he might be hiding somewhere and not exposing himself.

Is there any chance he's hiding in a city?
I don't believe he's hiding in a city. Ayman al-Zawahiri [his deputy] is sometimes in an urban area. I don't believe that is the case with Osama bin Laden. And watching the whole video, it seems that it's cut off at several points. I wouldn't be surprised if, due to the [remote] hiding place of bin Laden, this was recorded with a mobile-phone camera, which we know is very popular in the jihadi community.

There's been much speculation about his health, including unsubstantiated reports that he has kidney disease and that he needs special medicines. Do you think he looks healthy?
I couldn't see anything that marks him with any kind of disease. In this clip of
about 25 minutes, which obviously was done from different cuts of tape, he looks
fine and appears healthy.

What was the central message he was trying to send?
The general message is that anything and everything that is happening in the world of terror is not his fault—that what happened on 9/11 and what's happened since then, including the war in Iraq, is the fault of the American administration. He is attacking both the Republicans and the Democrats.

This is a theme he began in the last video three years ago, when he attacked both President Bush and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Correct. He continues that here. He is trying to present the image that the United States—the richest country and the superpower of the world—was not able to defeat an organization like Al Qaeda after six years. So the solution should be sought in different ways.

Why do you think he is emerging now? More than a year of silence—I think it's the longest stretch of silence since 9/11. And the last message was an audio message; it's been nearly three years since the last video. Why now?
Several elements. One, he may feel better securitywise. Second, it's important for Al Qaeda's propaganda. Usually, every anniversary of 9/11 they release video. In 2003, for instance, they showed footage of bin Laden and Zawahiri walking in the mountains of Afghanistan. Last year they issued the video of bin Laden and the hijackers preparing for 9/11, which was never seen before. And so this is one of the surprises they usually prepare for 9/11. The video is just another proof to Al Qaeda that six years of the war on terror, and six years of attempts to hunt down bin Laden, didn't lead to a lot of success.

In recent months U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Al Qaeda Central is planning something big. Apparently they have good evidence of this, but not enough to warn of a specific plot. Is bin Laden's appearance an omen that an attack is coming?
Well, he didn't make references to that. In previous messages he issued specific warnings, even in the 2004 video, when he said if you do not stop the Iraq war and other places you will be attacked in a dramatic way. This time he didn't issue any threats in that style. He called on the American people to convert to Islam.

Is that perhaps because he's afraid of losing credibility, given that Al Qaeda hasn't had a successful big attack on the United States since 9/11?
No, I think in this video he is trying to present the image of a leader, to show that they are not interested in terrorist activities just to kill people for no reason. He's trying to present Qaeda's reasons for this war from their point of view. That's one of the reasons they had this video made with English subtitles.

Do intelligence officials believe, as they did in the early period after 9/11, that bin Laden's videos contain coded messages to terrorists in Western countries?
Well, usually their messages are very clear. Zawahiri gives instructions on who to attack, what to attack. I really don't think they're coded. They say it clearly. In this specific message, bin Laden didn't do that.

Do you think the audience here is really the American people—that he believes he can influence American public opinion—or is it just a kind of show, trying to win over more moderate Muslims who are not supportive of the wanton killing of civilians around the world?
I think it's all of the above. It is addressed to the American people. This is not the first time we see the Qaeda propaganda machine trying to reach the American people. One example is the video of Adam Gadahn, the American who plays a very important role in Al Qaeda's propaganda. He was featured in an hourlong video called "Invitation to Islam," and in that piece he described his turn to Islam and Al Qaeda—how an American man became part of Al Qaeda. That message came out last year.

We've heard that several jihadi websites that put up the promo version of this video announcing its arrival suddenly crashed all at once. There was speculation that there had been some kind of coordinated cyberattack by Western agencies, or perhaps that the sites were overloaded with traffic and crashed naturally. Have you seen that?
Let's take as a case study a website called Ekhlaas. This is a password-protected jihadi message board with strong ties to Al Qaeda. This is the first message board that had the banner about bin Laden's forthcoming video. Some of the URLs of this site were down, but not all. They [jihadi webmasters and administrators] are familiar with these kinds of attacks. This is not the first time that they experienced cyberattacks. So in many cases they are prepared for that. They have numerous URLs, and so if some are attacked there are others that can continue their communications. So as we speak right now, it's business as usual with that message board.

Where are most of these sites hosted?
I guess your question is about what kind of ISPs [Internet service providers] they use. Many of them use American ISPs. Where are the physical locations of the individuals running them? That is a different question. Some of their people appear to reside in the West, from the U.K. and Europe to the United States. Others are in the Middle East: Jordan, UAE [United Arab Emirates], Saudi Arabia and other places. The beauty of their system is that it's a virtual network, embodied in a virtual Al Qaeda propaganda organization called "al Fajr Center." Because the Internet can put together people from all over the world in a meeting place on a specific URL, the geographic differences don't play a role.

How many people play a part in this virtual Al Qaeda?
In the virtual management, they have different committees, from the distribution committees to propaganda committees, where people author messages. Hundreds of people play different roles. They are not getting paid for it, and you'll find that these people spend day and night running the Al Qaeda propaganda campaign online. As for the members, the Ekhlaas forum we mentioned earlier, for instance, has about 30,000 members.

How many sites does this virtual Al Qaeda have?
It's a lot of websites. Someone takes down a website, and the next day it's up again. They have several primary message boards, but then there are many others. I don't think it's possible to count them.

Are they all in Arabic?
Many are in Arabic. The primary sources that distribute Al Qaeda's propaganda, the password-protected message boards, are in Arabic. But even Ekhlaas has a section in English in which people can chat about different issues in English. But in addition to that, there are many English, French, German websites.… Any official release from Al Qaeda, you'll be able to find it in different languages. They have translation teams that translate these messages to different languages and post them to different sites all over the world, targeting different groups of people.

How long does it take for the official release of the video after the promotional banners appear?
The release of a video like this from al Fajr Center, the Qaeda media center, takes a lot of preparation. They usually upload the file in a variety of formats to about 60 or 90 URLs, so people all over the world will be able to download the video without having a bad link. They also upload a video format unique to cell phones, which is very popular in the Middle East. Sometimes files are uploaded just as audio files. So it's a long process that can take two to five days. But in the case of the bin Laden video, there were close to 650 different URLs for download, in different versions: high-quality, medium-quality, audio-only and cell-phone version. This is a huge number, which I don't think we've seen before. Yet they did them within 48 hours.

Why does bin Laden appear so rarely? If it's as easy as making a video on a cell phone, which can be carried from one hand to another, why has he waited so long?
It might be security reasons. The other issue is that the publicity factor is very important to Al Qaeda. I believe they try to save bin Laden for important messages.

Is there anything in this video that jumped out at you, where you said, "Wow, this is a big change?"
No. I actually thought this didn't have a great message. He repeated a lot of what he said before. I was actually expecting the new message from Osama bin Laden to come after some kind of successful attack. It didn't happen, and they decided it was still the time to come out with a message.

Apparently, there's a new Qaeda video coming out soon.
The new video is another production of Al Qaeda's production company, featuring one of the 19 hijackers of 9/11, Waleed Alshehri, in which he is basically reading his will. It's new footage, not seen before. And bin Laden appears, looking the same as in the previous video, introducing Waleed Alshehri. The images are already advertised on the jihadi forums.